Growing up in community housing, I had to fight for my education. Now, as a chemist, I bring STEM learning to low-income kids

Growing up in community housing, I had to fight for my education. Now, as a chemist, I bring STEM learning to low-income kids

Eugenia Addy, formerly Eugenia Duodu, grew up in community housing in Etobicoke and often had to fight for access to education. Now she has a PhD in chemistry and runs Visions of Science, a non-profit that brings STEM learning to low-income kids. As the school year ramps up, we spoke to Addy about how she got where she is and the education gaps facing students from marginalized communities, especially during a pandemic. 

As told to Pacinthe Mattar

I grew up in a community called Capri, or the East Mall, in the west end of the city. It was a single high-rise apartment complex that was home to a vibrant, multicultural community of newcomers—a lot of East and West Africans. I didn’t know that it was considered a “low-income community” until I got to elementary school, which was in Etobicoke. When my friends and their parents drove me home after birthday parties, they’d often ask: “This is where you live?” It took me a while to be proud of where I was from. I’d say, “Yeah, this is actually where I live, and you can drop me off right here. Thanks.”

I felt super-safe in my community. I loved where I was from. I was an only child and raised by my mother, who worked in accounting. I came to think of my neighbours as my family. There were Sunday dinners, birthday parties, soccer games, barbecues at the community centre. My mom knew everyone in our building, and she impressed two key principles on me. First, you ride for your community. You check in on people, and you let them know you care about them. The second thing was to take care of them. And I saw her live by those principles: when I was around nine, she noticed one of our neighbours was going to school without breakfast. Without any questions, she started putting one more Eggo waffle in the toaster. She’d wrap it up in aluminum foil and send me off to hand it to him as we made our way to school.

For as long as I can remember, I was obsessed with science shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Magic School Bus. I wanted to watch anything that taught me about the world. My whole thing was like, “Why, why, why, why, why?” And I sought out anything that would help me answer that question.

I was especially into building things. I put together all of our furniture when I was young enough to be excited about it and old enough to do it safely. I never had science fairs in my school, but I would watch TV shows that had them and create my own science fairs at home. It didn’t go over well, because there’s nine-year-old Eugenia cooking up a volcano at home, using up all this baking soda, all this vinegar. My mom would come home and ask, “Who told you to use all of that?” To her, they were were groceries, but to me they were lab materials.

My mom had a serious hand in convincing me I had an aptitude for science and math. She had a background in math, and she was always telling me not to be afraid of numbers. She could make practical everyday things connect to math. If we were talking about fractions, she was there pulling out something from everyday life—a pizza, or Smarties, for example—to demonstrate what that fraction looks like. She would say, “Does this look like half? Let’s count it.” She made knowledge a part of my everyday life.

One day, when I was in Grade 6, we went to BiWay, a department store that was around when I was younger. I wanted to buy something—I can’t remember what it was, but I remember what my mom said when I asked her for it. “Is it on sale?” I told her there was a sale sign with a percentage off. Then she asked, “So how much cheaper is it? If you can tell me, I’ll buy it for you.” From that day forward, I knew how to calculate things on the fly and do quick maths. Things like that were so subtle, but they helped my confidence. My mom was adamant with her message: you can do this, you can do the hard things, and you continue to ask your questions.

And yet my educational journey at home was so much different from my education at school. I did well. I got good grades. But I spent most of my time trying to navigate my relationship with teachers. I was always hearing: “You have an attitude,” “you talk too much.” Many teachers never commented on my learning, my ideas or my work. My behaviour—no, my perceived behaviour—was the focal point. I was constantly called aggressive. Once, a student answered a question in a class discussion, and I put up my hand and shared my answer, which was different. The teacher said, “That’s not very nice. It would be great if you could just hold back a little.” This happened a lot. I thought there was something wrong with me. There was a clear pattern in how teachers responded to me and other Black girls: we were seen as problem kids, reprimanded, told we weren’t being nice. It just didn’t happen to my other classmates. As I got older, I began to see this pattern of behaviour from teachers for what it was: internalized racism.

This was something that I had to brace for, all the while trying to stay focused on school. I became preoccupied with how I carried myself in the classroom. I’d often ask myself, Wait a minute. If I answer this question confidently, will it be seen as aggressive? Perhaps I shouldn’t put my hand up so much. Or, Someone just answered this question incorrectly. Should I say something? Or will the teacher think I have an attitude?”

I had one or two teachers who supported and encouraged me, but it was inconsistent. My passion for science tapered in elementary school and throughout middle school. Despite all my curiosity and interest and passion, no one saw me as a science person. Most of my awards in middle school were for sports—I played soccer, basketball, and did track.

Then, at the end of Grade 9, my science teacher saw my potential and convinced me to enrol in a Grade 10 microbiology course—it was a rare class that was only offered at my high school. Not only did I take the course, but I ended up with an encouraging, amazing Grade 10 science teacher. I loved the microbiology course, and I flourished there. We were out here wearing lab coats and doing real experiments. One of the main culminating projects was getting a vial of bacteria and having to identify what was in there using tests we’d learned throughout the year. I was one of the first people, if not the first person, to accurately identify what was in my vial. I was feeling myself. and I was like, “Okay, because I’m a scientist though.” My confidence was on a hundred.

At the same time, I was the only Black student in that class and I didn’t feel like I belonged. When it was time for me to go, my friends would be like, “Yo, you’re going to that class with your lab coat, eh? Okay, okay.” My close friends were super-supportive and cheered me on, but there were others who would hear about it and go, “Yuck. That’s not for me, that’s too hard.”

I had no specific career plans at this point—all I knew was that I liked science a lot, and wanted to know the next steps. My teacher told me I’d need to take all three science courses—biology, chemistry, and physics—as a starting point. When I went to the guidance counsellor to transfer into those classes, she said, “These are going to be too hard for you. Don’t you like doing hairdressing?” I was so surprised—all I could do was a five-dollar braid up. I wondered where she got the idea that I liked to do hair. She discouraged me from going into the science classes, which was a problem because she was the only one that could enrol me.

In the end, my mom stepped in and I got a new guidance counsellor. My mom went to war for me multiple times. She regularly had to push back against teachers’ focus on my perceived behaviour, rather than my studies. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her fighting for me me, time and time again. At every parent-teacher conference, my mom would hear “Eugenia rolled her eyes at me three days ago.” And my mom would say, “Okay, but how is she doing in school?”

In Grade 11, things took off for me. I was able to learn about the human body, how chemicals appear in the everyday world, and how physics could explain everyday phenomena. Once I understood the underlying theories behind them, I remember thinking, “This is so cool. Now, what can I do with all of this?”

One day, I was sitting in the school hallway with my head buried in a science textbook when a student teacher came up to me and said, “So you like science?” She told me that her friend was the coordinator of a health sciences program at the University of Toronto for Black and Indigenous youth, and that I needed to be a part of it. The deadline to apply was the next day. But she told me she’d help me, and she did. The encouragement from a specific teacher opened up a whole world for me. I didn’t even know that I could have a career in the subjects that I cared so deeply about. She showed me that she saw me, that she saw what I was capable of and wanted to foster that in me.

I spent the summer before my final year of high school at U of T’s Summer Mentorship Program. I was surrounded by Black and Indigenous excellence, which I’d never seen in my life. Not only was I meeting doctors and scientists who were doing incredible work, but they also happened to look like me and have incredible stories. I met a Black physician who was also a mom. She and others would drill messages in me: to never give up, to stay on track, that I was in the right place. I gained a whole new peer group and I was exposed to so many things—I even got to see a live birth. I left that program with so much more confidence and faith in what my future could look like, because I’d seen it with my own eyes.

I contrasted that program with times in school where I looked at my textbooks and wondered, where are the Black people? When studying science, I’d think, so no Black people contributed here? As I came to understand more about Black history, I put two and two together and understood we either didn’t have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions, or that we made meaningful contributions that weren’t documented.

Naturally, I ended up at U of T is after that summer program. I started my undergraduate degree in 2006, majoring in biology and chemistry, and went on to a master’s program and a PhD in chemistry. I earned my doctorate in 2015. Throughout my post-secondary schooling, I was still one of the few Black people in class. It was difficult, but I had a great support system. My classmates and I would study together at U of T libraries every Saturday, and we carried each other through the hard parts.

I remember my professor coming out of my defence and saying “Congratulations, Doctor.” For weeks, it felt like a big coming-home party for me back in my community—the younguns especially celebrated me. Everyone was like, “Yo, doctor! You know she’s a doctor, fam? That’s my doctor!” The whole time I kept trying to say, “I’m not that kind of doctor,” but they didn’t want to hear it. People around me just bigged me up and showed me so much love. It took years to feel comfortable with calling myself Dr. Eugenia Duodu, but it was my community who proudly called me that first.

While I was at U of T, I wanted to be involved with something that connected both community and science. So I Googled those two things, and Visions of Science came up. It’s a charity that runs free educational programs in science, technology, engineering and math for kids in low-income communities. I applied to be a volunteer at an event in 2011. That day, I met Francis Jeffers, then the executive director, and he said: “You’re going to take this over.” And by the end of 2015, I was executive director.

We offer programs for various age groups across Peel Region and the GTA. For kids grades 3 to 8, we have a weekly STEM club that runs throughout the school year where students can participate in hands-on workshops, do experiments and learn everything there is to know about STEM, right downstairs in their own buildings; it might be anything from making slime to making a robot. They’re taught by a team of caring, consistent mentors—both older students and scientists who we train in house. For older students, we have a youth program that’s like a high-intensity camp, and we connect them to different programs, like U of T’s summer mentorship program and U of T’s engineering summer academy. And throughout the school year, students are able to give back to their community and run their own STEM clubs. There’s a big focus on hands-on learning, but also leadership and personal development.

My work at Visions of Science is a mixed bag: fundraising for our programs and initiatives, building up our capacity, overseeing our operations. The early days also involved meeting people in the community and recruiting youth to come to one of our clubs. I would meet kids at community barbecues, hand out flyers, and tell them what we were about. Some of the people I met in those early years are still with us today. What quickly became clear was that this was something unknown—the STEM world wasn’t one that these kids had access to. A lot of them didn’t know that these opportunities existed. It reminded me of my own time in school, and not knowing what was out there for me.

I became conscious of the gaps that existed: you can have all these amazing university programs, but if they’re too far—either physically remote or financially out of reach—they’re going to exclude people. The other gap I saw was who the programs were designed for. A lot of these STEM programs are not marketed to youth in our communities, so how can we expect them to know about them and come out?

Then there are the negative perceptions that kids have about STEM: that it’s hard, boring, hard, scary. There’s the issue of finding access to programs and teachers who are going to help you. The opportunities I received changed my life. But I got to do that because a teacher literally patted me on the shoulder and said, “Yo, you should do this.” But how often does that happen? And even when meaningful opportunities exist, there’s a price tag attached. With Visions of Science, I wanted to be part of something that made a journey like mine less serendipitous and more intentional.

When I began as a volunteer, Visions of Science was working in six communities in the city, with an operating budget of around $20,000. Five years later, we have four core program areas and we serve about 1,500 students from 29 communities. Our operating budget is now almost $1.2 million.

I’ve seen how Visions of Science can affect those who are part of it. I think of two girls who joined us in Grade 4 as participants in the Community STEM Clubs program; now they’re STEM Community Leaders. Initially they were shy and reserved, but they both say being part of Visions has changed their personality: the shyness has melted away, and public speaking is no longer a nightmare. One of them gave a speech at our annual Visionary Gala. She told me it was probably the most nerve-wracking thing she’s ever done, but it gave her a huge sense of accomplishment. In addition to the amazing personal development and growth, the program has boosted their educational careers and futures: they both got into York University to study concurrent education.

The youth that come to Visions don’t quit after a year. They feel like they’re part of something. We have members who have been around for anywhere from two to eight years. At school, members report that they like science more, and it shows in their schoolwork. And we also have this growing cohort of dedicated youth who love what they do and then stick around, encouraging the next generation to experience it too.

I’m thinking about the next generation a lot these days because I just became a mother. I want my son to look at the world and approach his learning with no barriers or limits. I hope and pray that he has a heart for the people around him, for his community and society, and that he can have a meaningful influence. When I think about my own story, it’s frustrating how many people erected barriers for me, and how I even erected some for myself. I initially struggled with taking the helm as CEO of Visions of Science because I didn’t think I was capable of running an organization at this scale—which is strange, because I grew up in the community we serve, and I experienced the barriers. I didn’t think I could be part of the solution, because I’d never been part of any solution. I want my son to know that he can be part of the solution to whatever problems he sees.

And of course, we’re constantly thinking about solutions now with Covid-19. As soon as lockdown started in March, we did a consultation with our Visions of Science communities. We called, checked in on them, asked what they needed. We wanted to make sure they knew that we cared about them and that they were indeed part of a community. We called every single participant in our database and talked to them and their parents.

The technology barrier was huge—many of our members were dealing with slow Internet and limited bandwidth. Once we started asking questions, we became overwhelmed by the fear that we could not fix it all. There’s a lot of nuance when we talk about access to technology. You can have a laptop in your home, but how many people are supposed to be using it? What time do they all need it? Is your home even suitable for working? Do you have air conditioning? Do you have a desk? Do you rely on going to a library to get anything done? How many siblings do you have? Do you have to babysit them while your parents are at work because they’re essential workers? These were some of the questions our participants are facing—not just with Visions of Science but with their regular schooling too.

We were able to refer some of our community to pre-existing supports that they may not have known about. The two young women, who’d joined us in Grade 4, developed a Covid online Visions tutoring program. There was a lot of information sharing about food programs, for example. But it’s a challenge: if we have 1,500 kids and only 50 laptops to give out, how do we pick who will get them? We’re getting creative in terms of addressing the barriers and leveraging technology. We’re trying Zoom, and whatever other technological ways we can stay safe. We also created some virtual programming, which the kids liked, and we did some educational videos.

One of the things that’s so special about Visions is that most of our staff live in these neighbourhoods—I still live nearby in South Etobicoke, for example. They’re dealing with these same issues, navigating a pandemic as people of colour in low-income communities. So we’ve paced ourselves a bit. We’re making sure that we can refocus and get our people to a place where they can give back. We’re trying to get a better understanding of how long this is will go on and trying to plan for in-person programming again, because that’s where we want to be. In the meantime, we’re figuring out what else we can do: maybe we send kids a STEM box with activities that they can do at home, or maybe we can figure out a way to provide tech on a larger scale.

Despite the upheaval, we still have our community. We still have our people. We were disturbed by the narratives in the news about low-income neighbourhoods. Everything that was reported about us was like, “They don’t have computers! They don’t have food!” But community isn’t cancelled—we turned that statement into a campaign for Visions of Science. We’re resilient. We’re still out here. We’re still trying to learn. And we still have incredible things to say. I believe the best is yet to come. Even in a pandemic, our youth are contributing in amazing, meaningful ways.